In more than thirty years of publishing fiction, I have written only one ghost story.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Also, I am afraid of them.
But many years ago when my four children were small, I was intrigued – as any harried mother might be – by a ghostly topic I found irresistible.
The piece started not as fiction but as a feature for The Baltimore Sun Magazine, about a couple who had bought a spacious, pre-Civil War farmhouse to accommodate their growing family – two little boys and another on the way. Everyone loved the big rooms and large yard. What they didn’t love was the occasional chiming of a clock that didn’t exist, the sense they had of eyes watching them as they re-painted their family room, a rocking chair that rocked for no reason. They joked, but didn’t quite believe, that the place was haunted.
Then the baby was born. Almost at once, he slept through the night. His pacifier never fell out of his mouth. Once, a window that had been left open in his room was already secured against a summer storm when his mother came in to close it. Late one night, the parents returned from a party to see a long-haired girl – the babysitter, they assumed – visible in an upstairs window, comforting the baby. But inside the house, both the baby and the sitter were sound asleep.
A ghostly nanny? It seemed so. Research on the history of the house made them decide the ghost was a mother who, more than a century before, had lost her child. Maybe she was trying to protect this one.
But as time passed, the baby grew into a child who understood some of what was going on. When a local newspaper ran an article about the haunting, it spawned lots of gossip. Did the boy really see something? Or had he heard people talking about it, including his siblings? Either way, he was no longer comforted by the spectral being in his room. Night after night he woke up screaming. “The lady” was sitting in the empty rocking chair near his bed. He cried and fussed and became ever more agitated. The situation had to be remedied.
Soothing words didn’t work. Bribes (pancakes for breakfast!) were a joke. Appealing to reason produced louder temper tantrums. “You don’t believe me! I know you don’t!”
So the mother said the only thing she could. Of course she believed him, of course she did. She sat down in her son’s room and had a talk with the ghost. She spoke softly, with as much affection as she could muster. “I know you love him,” she told the empty chair. “I know you took good care of him. But now you’re making him frightened. If you really care for him, you’ll go away.”
And the ghost did.
Did I believe it? Do you? There had been a guest who insisted she couldn’t sleep because a little blond-haired girl kept crawling into bed with her. Another who claimed she’d been pushed from behind while she was washing her hair. Ghostly pranks? Maybe. But there was also the mother’s description of a translucent scene she’d seen superimposed over the master bedroom, of slaves discussing the underground railroad. What this had to do with the babysitting ghost, I never knew.
All the same, I used almost everything I’d been told, and the story ran as planned in The Baltimore Sun Magazine.
Afterwards, I moved out of state and lost touch with the family. Sometimes I wished I could have talked to the young ward of the ghostly sitter to see what he remembered when he got older. But by then I was writing mostly fiction, and eventually my one-and-only ghost tale became a short story that was published in McCall’s in 1987. I didn’t think about it again until I was sorting through old stories for a collection due out next spring – Kaleidoscope, celebrating women’s magazine fiction from the 1980’s and 1990’s.
I suppose, like the ghosts themselves, old ghost stories never die.
As I said, I was the mother of four young children when I wrote mine. Now I’m the grandmother of fifteen. I still don’t believe in ghosts and I’m still afraid of them – but with a caveat. I figure that, if you are going to have a ghost in the house, it might as well babysit.
Ellyn Bache is the author of nine novels, including Safe Passage, which was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon, and The Art of Saying Goodbye, which was a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) “Okra Pick”and SIBA Book of the Year nominee. She has published dozens of short stories in literary and commercial publications, but only one fiction piece about ghosts. “The Babysitter” will be reprinted in Kaleidoscope, a collection of her commercial magazine stories, due out next spring. Visit her at www.ellynbache.com.